Giving Thought: Creative funding solutions needed to support our workforce

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought

Unfortunately, housing will not build itself overnight. The building process takes time, not to mention money and a workforce to complete the process.

While there is undoubtedly money in our region, it is not always available in the places or to the people who need it for housing. This imbalance of resources has created a crisis for many.

Employees are essential for ensuring we have a thriving region, and yet many employees are leaving unable to live in the region, creating additional layers of crisis. The workforce exodus is not confined to those in the service industry; but rather, this phenomenon has extended to the professional sector that is critically needed for a sustainable community.

At the recent Habitat for Humanity of Roaring Fork Housing Summit in Aspen, attendees heard from Tom McCauley, chief human resources officer at Aspen Valley Hospital, who shared that the hospital is struggling to not only recruit doctors to the hospital, but also to retain them.

In case of a medical emergency, all of us likely can agree we would like to have our doctor within a 20-minute drive; and yet, this is a struggle, as many are not able to find housing within that range, given the cost and lack of available housing.

“Housing is the biggest threat to health care in our region,” McCauley said.

Jeff Gatlin, chief operating officer at Roaring Fork School District, said teacher housing units would have an average of three applications for each available unit when he began with the district. Now that number is closer to 13 applications per unit. As a result of the housing shortage, teachers are leaving the region or the field completely. Their quality of life is no longer sustainable.

“Schools are the foundation of a community,” he said, “and our schools are suffering due to the lack of continuity in teaching staff, transportation, and other administrative shortages schools are facing.”

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, wages in 2022 have increased 15%-35% from 2018. At the same time, the average sale price of homes in our region has increased 42%-71%. In addition, rent has increased 40%. These statistics alone begin to illustrate the dire situation faced by our local workforce. They are not operating in a vacuum. During that same period of time, non-local home buyers increased by 80%. 

Segments of our workforce that might have been positioned for home buying just a few years ago now find themselves having to make difficult decisions about sacrificing quality of life to stay in our community and with their employers, moving farther downvalley, or leaving the region completely.

Several Housing Summit panelists highlighted that the housing crisis has created a secondary crisis for the health and human service sectors whose capacity was already strained prior to the pandemic. Systems are facing increased demand from families who are juggling long commutes, increased cost of living, lack of child care, inflation, and other stressors.

When a parent commutes almost two hours for work, there are children who need care being left behind. Additionally, long commutes reduce the amount of time parents are able to spend navigating any of the myriad of issues that can arise while raising a child. These struggles and burdens create ripple effects that impact families immediately and extend into the community and future.

While there might be an inclination to throw up one’s hands in the face of a crisis of this magnitude, it is important to realize that in the face of unprecedented problems, there is also an opportunity to explore innovative solutions.

In February, Pitkin County began offering quarterly stipends of up to $1,500 to child-care workers and preschool teachers to supplement their incomes. The Childcare Staff Support Stipend program, administered by Aspen Community Foundation, provides immediate, short-term support to child-care teachers and staff working in a challenging local landscape. According to county officials, child-care centers struggle to remain competitive with other professions, and the rising costs of housing make retaining and attracting teachers difficult.

While this program is still in its infancy, the impact of an extra money in the hands of our essential child-care providers is a step in the right direction of acknowledging the challenges faced by those doing critical work in our region.

Non-profit leaders across our region have lamented the revolving door of staff due to challenges faced trying to earn a sustainable living. With the financial strains faced by employees, it is not uncommon for them to leave a position for a few additional dollars an hour or shorter commute. Without continuity of staff, non-profits that provide critical services struggle with keeping up with the demands.

Raising staff wages are often complicated for non-profits due to restrictions placed on them by funders. Grants and donations often come with stipulations that do not allow them to be directed toward staffing costs. This practice creates budget complications and staff crises.

As philanthropists hope to use their resources to support sustainable systems, perhaps the time has come to explore the necessity of directing financial support to the humans needed to sustain the critically-needed work or allowing support to be directed toward housing stipends or other supports.

Until homes can be built overnight, we have an opportunity as a community to explore creative ways to support our workforce. This might require some pushing of previously held beliefs on funding and wages, but it has the potential to begin to shift the statistical improbability of our regional workforce thriving.

Allison Alexander is the director of strategic partnerships and communicationsfor the Aspen Community Foundation, which with the support of its donors, works with non-profits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.